Any gamer worth their salt knows the name Lara Croft, the iconic female protagonist in the classic Tomb Raider series that dates back to the mid-1990’s. Her blend of charisma, intelligence and agility has made her a role model for some and a pin-up for others, but there is no denying that she is one of pillars of the modern platforming genre. Since it was first unveiled in early 2011, the “reboot” of the Tomb Raider series has been subject to extensive media coverage, mostly for the dark and gritty direction it has taken. With Crystal Dynamics at the development helm and Sqare Enix handling the publishing duties, we’ve been given a completely different kind of game with a very different Lara Croft. Does this latest installment do justice to the rich history of the series? The answer, not surprisingly, is a resounding yes.
In an effort to reinvent the Lara Croft character, the new Tomb Raider takes us back to her origins as an ambitious and worldly academic. In her first expedition aboard the ship Endurance, she is part of a research group searching for the ancient Japanese kingdom of Yamatai, which is said to be situated in the “Dragon’s Triangle” off the coast of Japan. Similar to the Bermuda Triangle, this rough patch of water is notorious people going missing and torrential storms. What Croft and her friends are seeking is the “Sun Queen”, a mythical shaman queen who is believed to hold great power. As one might expect, the expedition doesn’t go smoothly and Croft and company soon find themselves shipwrecked on an island in the Dragon’s Triangle. This is where the adventure begins in earnest.
While the island is full of wonder and intrigue, we quickly find out that it is also full of hostile enemies. These consist mainly of shipwreck survivors who have become fanatical worshippers of the Sun Queen. During the first part of the game, they have kidnapped Croft’s friends and she must venture to rescue them. This involves a lot of killing, something she has never previously been called upon to do. During the later parts, the story attempts to throw some interesting curveballs, none of which are particularly effective or surprising. The story succeeds in building an interesting story arc for Croft, but doesn’t do much outside of that. The overall plot feels generic and vanilla for the genre, making you care less about Croft finding her friends and more about her own struggle for survival.
The Lara Croft character herself is an interesting hybrid of scholar and killing machine. She begins the game as a wildly ambitious academic who has devoted her life to her pursuits, but circumstances plunge her into a brutal abyss of violence. It’s a well-tread story arc in video games, and it is handled reasonably well here. When her adventure begins, she is a fairly sympathetic character who doesn’t take pleasure in killing people or animals. Once she acquires the bow and various guns, however, any semblance of vulnerability dissipates rapidly. She becomes a fairly emotionless killer who can blast through waves of enemies with relative ease. However, this being an action-focused game, it’s a necessary evil. While not fully believable, her character is genuinely enjoyable and you will spend the entire game rooting for her.
If there is one thing that the Tomb Raider series has historically succeeded in, it’s showing that strong female leads can be a formidable force. The new Lara Croft doesn’t completely escape sexualization, as the camera is not above conveniently showing her cleavage during cutscenes, however this has been noticeably toned down. While females in games often fall into two tropes; damsel in distress or the sexed-up ass kicker, Croft is really neither. She is a fighter and a survivor who endures some rather harsh treatment throughout the game, so much that it borders on gratuitous at times. However, there is some satisfaction in seeing her greet a catcalling male enemy with a shotgun blast to the face.
Sticking the the gameplay style of the previous installments, Tomb Raider is a third-person action platformer that the series is known for. As Lara Croft, you’ll traverse a variety of hostile environments, dispatch enemies, overcome obstacles and find treasure. The island is full of temples, ruins, forests and tombs, all of which provide the perfect setting for some platforming fun. One particularly useful skill that you acquire early on is “Survival Instinct” mode that highlights key objectives and collectables in your environment. It serves the same function as “Detective Vision” in Batman: Arkham Asylum”, and you’ll find yourself using it often to scope out your surroundings.
The environments are nicely varied and each offer their own sense of challenge and reward. The lush forests and careening waterfalls you encounter early on are a treat for the eyes, while traversing a crumbling temple in the mountaintops provides a strong sense of exhilaration. In most cases, the way forward is clear, but the island is full of ledges, ziplines and structures you can climb. The island is a character all on its own, a playground of sorts for you to explore. Many of the scripted segments require precise timing, and this leads to one of the few flaws in the game, which is an over-reliance on quicktime events. Having to time a button press to escape a projectile, hold onto a ledge or finish off an enemy is fine in moderation, however it is used a little too often here.
While platforming is the main attraction in Tomb Raider, there is no escaping combat. The island is crawling with well-armed enemies, and Croft has a variety of weapons at her disposal for taking them out. The bow you acquire early on is great for long-range and stealthy kills, but those who prefer the more direct approach that only a shotgun or grenade launcher can provide will be well serviced. While some of the battles are scripted, you are generally afforded a solid amount of flexibility in how you dispatch the hostiles. The cover system that has become a standard for the third-person shooter genre is present here, but the enemy AI is surprisingly accurate and very generous with throwing molotovs and dynamite sticks. Don’t expect to lazily hide behind cover, as the enemies are good at smoking you out.
The gunplay and combat mechanics are a key strength in Tomb Raider. Each of the weapons offers a satisfying amount of weight and recoil, and you can use salvage to augment and upgrade your weapons throughout the game. Your bow can be equipped with a rope launcher that can get you into previously inaccessible areas, while your pistol and rifle can outfitted with larger ammo clips. In addition to your weapons, Croft’s own personal abilities can be upgraded in three key areas; Survivor, Hunter and Brawler. You can assign abilities based on skill points you acquire throughout the game, and it’s satisfying to see Croft get progressively tougher as a result.
The path forward in the main story is fairly linear, however there are rewards to be found off the beaten path. The environments all contain various collectables, such as relics and GPS caches that should appeal to completionists, as well as documents that help flesh out the story. The hidden tombs that are scattered throughout the game are similar to those found in the Assassin’s Creed series, though they are far less challenging or rewarding. These usually consist of a platforming puzzle that is fairly easy to solve, and the reward is a better-than-normal chunk of salvage. While not particularly memorable, these tombs serve as a good respite from the almost non-stop action.
The single player campaign can be beaten in about eight hours, however your mileage will vary depending on how much time you devote to searching for treasure. As is often the case with games nowadays, a competitive multiplayer component has been included to extend your playtime even further. The standard team deathmatch and objective-driven modes are accounted for, and while it works competently, it is not particularly engaging. It’s the same multiplayer we’ve seen in countless games, no better and no worse, and it’s appeal didn’t last beyond a few hours. It’s hard to escape the feeling that multiplayer isn’t something that Tomb Raider needed, so it stands as a mildly fun but ultimately forgettable inclusion.
It is impossible to discuss the gameplay in Tomb Raider without namedropping the Uncharted series, which is fair. Since Uncharted took quite a few cues from Tomb Raider, there is a noticeable cycle of influence going on here. Both games handle exceptionally well and their gameplay is well polished, but the controls are a notable highlight. The controls in Tomb Raider are fluid, intuitive and elegantly implemented, which is a must in a game that is full of setpiece moments. These segments require fast and responsive controls, and there were very few instances where I encountered problems or suffered a setback due to the games design. While the controls in the older games haven’t aged very well, they are absolutely spot on here.
Even from the earliest footage and screenshots released, it was clear that Tomb Raider is dressed to impress. The graphics are fantastic, combining some of the best elements of Uncharted and Far Cry 3. Each environment is rich with small details, animals running around and environmental hazards, all of which add a sense of realism. The enemy design is a fairly stock combination of riot-gear clad soldiers and machete-brandishing brutes, which further accentuates the fact that Croft is the star of the show. Despite a few wooden facial expressions, the raw emotion and sense of desperation that Croft exudes comes across as being genuine. The wear and tear of her adventure also shows in her appearance, as she gets progressively dirtier, bruised and bloody throughout the game.
In contrast to the previous games in the series, the violence has also been kicked up several notches. In an effort to add realism, this newest adventure of Lara Croft has her killing waves upon waves of enemies, effectively using a variety of weapons in the process. Blood flows freely, enemies die in gruesome ways and even some of the environments are full of body parts and gore. Walking up in a room with bodies hanging from the ceiling, eviscerated body parts and pools of blood is not an experience that you’re likely to forget. While the violence is bound to turn some people off, it never feels gratuitous or forced. This is a brutal game that pulls no punches, so caveat emptor: this isn’t your parent’s Tomb Raider.
It is also hard to find fault in the sound design, as the music is effective in matching the mood of each particular scene. When Lara emerges victorious after a battle or finds her friends, the music swells to convey her sense of triumph. During the platforming and exploration, the music is an uninvasive and ambient backdrop that you can enjoy. The voice acting is generally good, with Croft and her friends coming off as genuine and believable, though the enemies and peripheral characters are of a less consistent quality. Even the ambient noises most people overlook are exceptionally well done here. The sounds of footsteps in the grass, the crack of a loot crate being smashed and the metalic bang of guns being fired all add to the deep sense of immersion the player feels throughout the entire experience.
Crystal Dynamics and Square Enix took a risk in reinventing the wheel on the Tomb Raider series, however it has paid off in the finished product. Tomb Raider is an exciting, engaging and richly enjoyable experience that breathes new life into an ageing franchise. While Lara Croft’s fabled history is one of the most revered in gaming history, this new iteration proves that change is not always a bad thing. Not every inclusion is a great one, but these are merely nitpicks when compared to what you’ll take away from the game after the credits role. The quality and quantity of gameplay you get with Tomb Raider makes it a worthwhile purchase for both series veterans and newcomers alike, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find it on several “Best of 2013” lists come December.
Here’s the Rundown:
+ The origin story succeeds in making Lara Croft a character you’ll care about.
+ The varied environments allow for stellar platforming and exhilarating setpiece action segments.
+ The graphics and the sound design are best in class.
+ The variety of weapons at Croft’s disposal makes for some fun and satisfying combat.
– The overall plot is generic and predictable.
– The over-reliance on quicktime events is likely to be an annoyance for some.
– Perfunctory multiplayer feels generic and tacked on.
8 and 8.5 represent a game that is a good experience overall. While there may be some issues that prevent it from being fantastic, these scores are for games that you feel would easily be worth a purchase.